Vidas: Hi guys! This is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 471 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. And this question was sent by Jeremy. He wrote on our Basecamp communication channel for Total Organist Community:
Going to be a busy week, so I hope to get to the organ a little more than I think I will. We are having new floors put into our upstairs, so I will be hanging around the house. Piano practice will probably not happen, and my dogs will be going a little nuts with the construction happening. If possible, I will practice on the G minor Little Prelude and Fugue for Postlude on Sunday, and Demessieux's Attende Domine for Prelude. After that, I will be working on my normal repertoire.
And I wrote to him:
I have a feeling your congregation will enjoy hearing Demessieux. Do you write some program notes in the church bulletin?
And Jeremy answered:
No. Only a portion of the congregation listens to the preludes and postlude, so that lets me plan things like the Demessieux or even Messaien.
And then, Dianne jumped into the conversation as well:
A portion is something! When I subbed for my daughter, I played the last half of a 3 minute postlude to an empty sanctuary, save one little old lady, who stood up and applauded when I was done! My daughter says this is normal for her as well, and she is an excellent organist. And they mostly talk through the preludes, or enter the sanctuary at the last moment.
To this, I responded:
This is all quite sad to hear. Really what happens is that service starts with a prelude and ends with a postlude. So lots of education needs to be done. Including clergy. Maybe write short program notes about the music to be played that week in the church bulletin.
What do you think about our correspondence, Ausra?
A: Well, that’s very nice that people on Basecamp can communicate between themselves. I think it is very helpful. We can share problems, we can support each other. But the thing that struck me was that old lady who listened to that postlude and applauded afterwards. And it makes me feel that, you know, it doesn’t matter how many people listen to you. You always have to do your best. Because sometimes one old lady might be more important than entire crowd.
A: You never know when you will reach somebody’s heart with your music.
V: And this old lady might be a very famous organist, for example, traveling the country.
A: Well, it doesn’t matter if she is famous or she is not. The most important thing for me is that you reach her, you touch her with your music. And that’s, you know, I think that’s what music is about.
V: Touching people’s hearts?
A: True. Don’t you think so?
V: Of course. Then, I would think that educating people, educating congregation would help here a lot. Do you remember our church, Grace Lutheran Church, when we worked in Lincoln, Nebraska – they had a tradition that musical director, Sara Schott, would write a short note about today’s music selections. And I’m not sure if people read it or not, but it was there, and anybody who was interested could actually get educated this way.
A: I don’t remember that, actually. Probably I haven’t read the notes.
V: Well, you were busy playing.
V: And, what’s your impression about preludes and postludes in our church, at Grace Lutheran Church at that time? Did people listen?
A: Well, some of them listen, but some of them do not. I think it’s common for many congregations around the world.
V: Mm hm.
A: Somebody cares, and somebody not. You know, I remember thinking in Catholic Church, I sometimes observe people during the mass, that as soon as we receive communion, we leave the building, church building.
A: Yes, we, some of them really doesn’t wait for final blessing and the end of the mass. What could you, how could you force them to stay and to listen to your prelude, I mean, for your postlude, if we leave right after receiving communion?
V: Maybe you could play the postlude during communion! Ha ha!
A: That wouldn’t be good. You would be kicked out of church!
V: Yeah, that’s a tricky situation. When people don’t care, what can you do?
A: But you know, when we are talking about this problem, I remember this comic strip on the, I believe it was on Dr. Quentin Faulkner's door…
A: Where you know, old lady…
A: Brenda, yes – she was standing next to the organ bench with a long…
A: Gun. It’s like hunting gun, I believe.
V: Gun shot.
A: Yes, shotgun! And it said, “Brenda silenced the crowd for her prelude.” (laughs) And I have experienced episodes like this, when I’ve wanted to shut people down for my prelude or my postlude. Especially when I would learn something really sophisticated.
V: Yeah. Ausra stands up from, on the organ bench and yells, “You should have listened to my prelude!”
A: But the most important thing, I think, and one of the hardest things while serving the church is to play as well as you can, no matter what happens downstairs. And just focus on your music, no matter what.
V: Mm hm. It would be interesting to hear other listeners’ opinion and feedback in their churches. Do people appreciate music, or is it just a background noise?
A: I think it’s different in each case. I think you can find people always that appreciate music and people who don’t care about it.
V: Mm hm. That’s right. The good thing today is that you can find fans for your music, listeners for your music, much easier with technology than earlier. Playing in church is no longer a, you know, one opportunity for the organist to play in public or engage with the organ nowadays.
A: You mean not the only opportunity, yes?
V: Not the only, yes. Put it online, put your video online, and watch it spread.
A: Yes, like Vidas does!
V: And sometimes Ausra!
V: Excellent. Thanks, guys. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: Please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 178 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. Today’s question was sent by Michael. He writes:
Dear Ausra and Vidas,
First of all let me say thank you for all the valuable information you are generously sharing with us - this is so helpful and inspiring.
I would like to address a problem I have with hymn playing in a church with rather long reverb. At the console I hear the congregation sing with a delay of about half a second. I think this is the time the sound needs to reach the front wall, to become reflected and to reach me at the console in the rear. That makes it difficult to assess whether I am too fast or to slow for them to sing. This is absolutely no problem for me in smaller rooms with less reverb. Last Sunday my wife sat in the nave and said that she had also problems to adjust to my playing.
I have been playing the organ for more than 40 years and - although being an amateur - I would call myself an advanced player. I am used to soloing out hymn melodies in the soprano or tenor and have no problems in leading the congregation. It is just this church where I substitute from time to time and experience these problems.
Do you have any idea what to do?
Thanks a lot.
Ausra, have you had this experience before, where the delay and reverberation is huge, and you seem to drag a little bit with your liturgical playing?
A: Well, not so much with congregational singing. But I had that problem actually in Biržai, the northern city of Lithuania...
A: Which has a 3-manual pneumatical organ. Actually, I remember playing there a sort of huge program and recital together with you, remember?
A: And that time, I didn’t know what to do, because the sound of the organ actually would be delayed.
V: About what? How much?
A: Well, it’s hard to tell, but you know, I just could not manage it at that time. And it was a disaster, because I thought if I will hit the keys harder, the sound will come sooner! But actually, it was even more the opposite. The harder I tried, the more delayed the sound would become.
V: And the slower you played.
A: And the slower I played, yes.
V: It seems it’s a problem of a lot of historically-built pneumatical organs which are not in good condition, right? Because the air pressure in the tubes is not strong enough.
A: You know, but it’s an interesting thing, because when I returned to that instrument maybe after 10 years of a break, I didn’t have that problem.
V: Did this instrument have any restoration in between that time?
A: I don’t think so.
V: So you changed your approach somehow...?
A: Yes, I think I changed my approach--simply, I tried more various instruments in those 10 years, so...probably I became just a little better.
V: I see.
A: But in Michael’s case, yes, it might be a problem when you don’t hear what the congregation sings, and the church has reverberation. But I think there are ways you can improve that and make life for yourself easier.
V: It’s the same as in pneumatical organs, right? You have to lead with your fingers, and you have to not listen to what you are hearing, but rather imagine you are playing ahead of them, a little bit.
A: Yes. Actually, what I would do in a case like this is, I would try to articulate more.
A: That might help, for clarity, in a church with reverberation. Also, I would definitely sing together with my playing. Not necessarily aloud, but maybe in your mind. But just keep singing. It will give you a good idea of what the tempo should be, and how the congregation will sing. And I would keep the accompaniment as simple as possible, in a church like this. And Michael mentioned that he’s already an advanced player, having played over 40yrs. That’s excellent. But maybe you know that...making the melody in the soprano or in the tenor, or an ornamented version or another elaborated version--I would keep that for a drier acoustic, and the churches where he plays more often, and the congregation is more accustomed to his playing. But in this particular case, I would just keep the accompaniment as simple as possible. That might make things easier. What do you think, Vidas, about it?
V: I agree. And I would just imagine that Michael has to lead--not follow.
A: Yes, yes. Don’t wait for them!
V: Because they are waiting for you, and you’re waiting for them…
A: Yes, they need to follow you.
V: And everything gets slower and slower. So what it means, practically, probably--it will not be a pleasant experience for you to play a little bit ahead of them. Maybe half a quarter note ahead, maybe something like that--always leading them, right? It’s a similar situation when you have a slow response in low-pitched pedal pipes. You have to play the pedals a little bit earlier, like subbass ‘16 sometimes, soft. But soft and slowly speaking pipes, especially in the bass register, you have to lead them a little bit with your feet; and it’s not easy to do.
A: I don’t like that feeling, when it seems that you have to play pedal almost a quarter note off…
V: So what it means is, you have to lead with your feet, then.
A: Yes, that’s right.
V: Right. So then, in Michael’s case, he has to lead, perhaps, with his fingers, right? And imagine jumping in a little bit ahead of the congregation every time.
A: Yes. And you know, it would be nice if he would have an opportunity to listen to how the organ sounds from downstairs, when the congregation is singing. Maybe when another organist plays in that church, he could come and listen from downstairs.
V: Or ask his wife to record.
A: Yes, recording would also be a good idea.
V: And then, listen to this recording almost right away--after the service, preferably, when the impression is fresh in his mind. Right?
A: That’s true, yes. But it’s always hard to be an organist, because you sort of have to divide yourself. Half of you sits on the organ and plays, and the other half is downstairs, and listens to what you’re doing, and what the final result is.
V: And if the church is big enough, the sound will travel rather slowly; and people sitting in different positions of the church will hear differently, too. So perhaps people sitting in the front of the church will find, then, “Oh, the organ now is on time!” But then, people who are sitting in the back--“Oh, the organist is always sort of rushing!” Maybe people in the middle will find a balance. So you also have to find a balance between rushing a little bit and dragging. Or playing on time, I don’t know. But as Ausra says, record yourself, and listen to the recording, and then you will know how much you can anticipate the congregation.
A: Yes, that’s true.
V: Thank you guys. We hope this was useful to you. These kinds of questions are really fun to discuss, and they’re very practical, and a lot of people have the same frustrations that Michael has. So we really hope that you apply those tips in your practice; and if they do work for you, let us know. If they don’t--if you have some different experience or perspective, also never hesitate to write us. Thanks, guys! This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start Episode 176, of #AskVidasAndAusra Podcast. And this question was sent by Alan. He writes:
Vidas and Ausra,
I enjoyed this podcast. I think the best piece of advice for me was: “…you will not get a medal for playing advanced music.” I have to remember that playing the organ is sort of like driving a car, in that you have to know your limits. Otherwise you could end up losing control, which can sound pretty bad in the case of a pipe organ.
I had a different experience this past Sunday when I was playing at a local Uniting church: I was bringing the last hymn to conclusion, and wondered why the minister was soldiering on at full tempo instead of following my ritardando. I was then greatly embarrassed as the congregation continued with the fourth verse a cappella! I quickly switched registrations and backed off the swell pedal, and gently brought the organ back in for the second half of the verse. Nobody was fooled though.
V: Oh, remember Ausra, sometimes that happens, right? When, when the minister or a priest sings along and doesn’t listen to the organist at all, and has his own tempo, and the congregation also follows the priest or the minister and then the organist is left behind, or uh, or actually, maybe he sometimes speeds up and nobody listens, right?
V: Did this happen to you?
A: Well, maybe not so much as you know the organ would be silent, but, but, yes, sure, I had some, some stories like this.
V: In America or in here Vilnius?
A: Well, both places. Actually not so much in Lithuania because the congregation doesn’t like, you know, to sing so much in Lithuania. Although in Lithuania, usually you know, elder women like to, to slow down the tempo.
V: To drag.
A: Yes, to drag.
V: This is because perhaps the churches are big and the reverberation is also vast, and sounds travel slower this way.
A: Well, and they just like to sing in a very slow tempo.
V: Without any energy, right?
A: And to do much vibrato on each note. So just imagine that you know, the quarter note becomes like a whole note. It’s unbearable.
V: I think that was actually the case when in Germany, they introduced, um, congregational singing, back at the beginning of Reformation. Not at the exact beginning but maybe a century afterwards. And they tend to sing the chorales very, very slowly.
V: Did you hear about that?
A: Yes, I heard about that.
A: But that’s why, you know, the German organs have those huge pedals towers. Actually having the loud, eh, bass, held to you know, to, to, to, to regulate congregational singing. So I think it’s crucial, that you know, you would add enough of, of sound in the pedal part.
V: Would that help Alan too?
A: I hope so. I think he needs to play organ very loud in that case, you know, his pastor cannot, you know, dictate his own tempo while singing hymns.
V: Or make him sick, maybe ill, not sick, is the word. Maybe he can overpower him this way too, if the pastor had a cold or something.
A: Well, don’t be so cruel. I think making the registration louder will work just fine.
V: Sometimes loud registrations are a pain for people with hearing aids, right?
A; Mmmm, that’s true.
V: So it’s a slippery road, balancing, uh, registrations and power level of the organ and congregational singing, and elderly ladies too.
A: That’s true. So you know, it would probably be a good idea to discuss this with the pastor. Ideas with minister, ideas, about you know, singing congregational songs together and you know, about who is responsible for what. Because I think ministers should be responsible for liturgy, for making sermons, and I think organists should be responsible for making music. So while leading the congregational hymns, I think ministers should be listening to the organ. That’s my opinion.
V: Do you think that would work, discussing this with his minister?
A: It depends on what kind of character he is.
V: Because if he was, if he had enough tolerance, then he would have understood this already, right? That he had to follow organists lead. But if you bring up this issue to him and say, ‘dear pastor, or minister, please sing according to my wishes’, um, then, then he might perceive it as a threat.
A: Well then, there is one more thing he can to, just to play loud.
V: That’s not a bad solution though.
V: Because organ has to lead, and everybody else has to follow. But according to the text, sometimes registration can be softer too.
V: Alright, so we hope that Alan can experiment at least in making the tempos according to his wishes, but sometimes it’s dangerous to keep his own tempo, right, without any regard to the congregation.
A: Well, what you will have to do when you are accompanying hymns, you have to sing along. And I’m not meaning that you need to sing loud, you know, all the time, but at least in your mind, you, you need to sing, and you take breaths. That way you will know how to face and how it’s comfortable for sing for others. That way you know your tempo will be natural, as it should be. Because, I mean, if you will not, you know, consider the text, if you will not try to sing yourself and just take tempo whatever you want, it might not work. It might be awkward and unnatural.
V: It might be too fast.
A: Yes. So singing together you know, is always a good idea.
V: In Lithuania, organists tend to sing and play at the same time.
V: And in Poland, I heard too.
V: But in western countries, let’s say, organists have to play, and, and congregation or choir has to sing. Mmmm, so, experiment, experiment, experiment, and, choose what works best in the long run, right?
V: And avoid probably conflicts.
A: Sure. Sure. It’s better to get along well with, you know, everybody, especially with clergy since they write, you know, your check, most of the time.
V: There is another option; to play more unfamiliar hymns that the pastor or minister wouldn’t know.
A: Again, it depends on, you know, who selects the hymns for service.
V: Ah, yeah.
A: Because sometimes, it’s minister, who you know, picks hymns. Sometimes it’s organist or music director. So you never know.
V: You could, or Howard could write, compose his own hymn and then nobody would know. And then everybody would listen to him, and follow him, without singing, um…
A: Probably the hymns would wholly unfamiliar. Nobody will sing it.
V: Then you will need to do a congregational rehearsal.
V: Right? But it’s a good question sometimes to introduce a new hymn, unfamiliar, from the hymnal or from the hymn supplement, or, or even yes, to compose your own. I mean, you’re also creative, right, and you have the right to create whatever you want. Of course it doesn’t mean that everybody will love what you create.
V: But it doesn’t hurt trying, and learning from your mistakes, if there are any, and um, benefiting all, everybody. Excellent! Thank you guys for, for these questions. We love discussing them on the show. So please send us more of them. And um, now, we would love to go and practice, because if we just talk about practicing, it’s, it kind of defeats the purpose, right Ausra?
A: Yes, that’s right.
V: So, this was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen!
By Vidas Pinkevicius (get free updates of new posts here)
When Ausra and I were church musicians at St. John's before going to the US to study, we had to deal with the congregation that didn't sing hymns very actively.
I mean they joined in when the organ led them but were barely audible. The sound was halfhearted. By the way, that's how Lithuanians sing in churches in general.
Although we have traditional song festivals which have been running from the early 1920's (and now they are part of the UNESCO cultural heritage) but singing in Catholic churches is not our forte.
How about your congregation?
Do people enthusiastically join in hymn singing? Or do they just go through the motions without adding any energy?
John from Australia also has this challenge. He just moved from another town and found a congregation which he likes. They even let him play their organ and were amazing at his abilities.
So they offered him to play for their church services a couple of times per month. But John noticed that people don't sing from their hearts.
If you are in a similar situation, you might find my training "Enthusiastic Hymn Singing" helpful (50% discount is valid until May 5). Free for Total Organist students.
By Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene (get free updates of new posts here)
How would you feel if your pastor wrote thanks to you for leading the music making in the church service?
I know, you would feel grateful, right?
That's how one of our subscribers, Carolina felt. A while ago we received a this message from her:
"Dear Vidas and Ausra, I am forwarding an email from the pastor that led the service yesterday. I am a relief-organist and literally played in every church in our town. Thanks for your assistance from afar. I had so many silly questions and they were all promptly answered in a way that made me feel “I can do that”. Many times the emails sent by you were about techniques of aspects that I have been lying awake about. My son plays the trumpet – he passed the Gr 6 Trinity exam last year and enjoys playing in church. We played the prelude and postlude together."
This is what her pastor wrote to her:
"Good evening Carolina, thanks for inspired and inspiring music and accompaniment this morning. The congregation sang with gusto!"
Isn't that great to have such appreciative pastors or priests?
It feels very rewarding.
You want to keep extending your gratitude to other people around you.
You also want to make an even better job next time.
And so the cycle of gratitude continues.
Hold on to these people. They are very precious.
(Ignore the toxic trouble-makers. It's not for them that you dedicate your best work. It's for that woman in white coat who can't seem to hide the smile off her face looking up while you demonstrate a metal principal stop in the organ facade.)
Have you seen a member of the congregation come up to the organist and complain about her playing? I think this would work. This could work because this member only wants what's best for the organist and the congregation. And he knows what it takes to play the organ, right?
"Well, Maggie, I know how strongly you feel about using articulate legato in pre-1800 hymns but this time it was a bit too choppy. However, I think you did a marvelous job in applying pedal preparation in the communion hymn. Oh and by the way, I really enjoyed your postlude improvisation. Don't think I didn't notice all those clever transpositions of the Octatonic mode."
Do you have a question about harmony for Ausra? You can reach her by email.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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